Beyond his reputation as a two-way star, Jimmy Butler serves as a mirror through which we can view true and often unflattering images of his teams. Trade for him, and you acquire brutal honesty. Trade for him, and you acquire the ultimate test of a franchise’s chemistry, stability and flat-out desire to win.
Butler plays basketball like a mercenary. Do the job. No time for feelings or anything else. To benefit from the strength of his game, a team first must be able to handle the strength of his personality. He’s probably best for a veteran locker room, but fledgling squads keep looking to him to expedite their development.
The Philadelphia 76ers are the latest to experiment with Butler as their missing link. Two months ago, they traded for him knowing that he was too much for the Minnesota Timberwolves, a young team that appeared comparable to the Sixers until its implosion this season. Butler has been good for Philadelphia, especially as a late-fourth-quarter closer, and the team has a 16-7 record with Butler in the lineup.
Still, there has been drama. Still, the adjustment has been difficult, which was evident during the Washington Wizards’ 123-106 blowout victory over Philadelphia at Capital One Arena on Wednesday night. It came a day after the Sixers had walloped the Wizards at home and underscored the inconsistency of an intriguing team with a lot to learn.
“It was a disappointing performance,” Sixers Coach Brett Brown said. “For whatever reason, we do not play well in back-to-back games.”
They have more problems than just playing in back-to-backs. ESPN reported last week that Butler is unhappy with his role in Brown’s offense and wants more isolation plays called for him. In December, all-star center Joel Embiid groused about his role and asked for more post-ups and less floating on the perimeter. It’s common knowledge in the NBA that Embiid and point guard Ben Simmons have an awkward and tenuous relationship as two competitive young stars trying to balance their desire to stretch their individual limits with conforming for the good of the team.
Nevertheless, the Sixers are 27-15 and on pace to match last season’s 52-30 breakthrough. But no longer do they feel like a fun, young team with infinite upside. It feels as if they’re under pressure and on the clock to quickly progress to a championship level, even though Simmons is just 22 and Embiid is 24. Butler, 29, can opt out of his contract and become a free agent this summer. If he does, Philadelphia can offer him a five-year, $190 million maximum deal. If he leaves for another team, his maximum would be four years and $140 million.
To get Butler, Philadelphia sacrificed depth for star power. It traded starting forwards Robert Covington and Dario Saric in the package. Already thin and missing former No. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz, the roster is now desperate for any cheap, veteran role players who can be had when the buyout market gets hot in a month or so. The Sixers don’t match up well against Toronto, the current East top dog. And even though the Boston Celtics have struggled and used the season’s first half to figure out how all their pieces fit, they have made the conference finals in back-to-back seasons, and they also give Philadelphia trouble.
It all amounts to concern that Butler might stunt the Sixers’ growth. Or perhaps the concern should be that they haven’t created a culture that he can respect. For a team that took its sweet time rebuilding in an audaciously transparent lose-to-win manner, the Process is morphing into the Sprint. That’s the uncomfortable part of adding Butler, who is in his prime and claimed this week, “I’ll be done with this game before I’m 35.”
Some might consider Butler a cancer or an attention fiend. But if you like hard-nosed basketball, you have to respect him. He’s a relic of an era in which physical play and toughness mattered most. He competes. This era is a fun and aesthetically brilliant period, and it’s great to see the game being played with a heavy emphasis on skill. But there should be room for bulldogs who can also shoot, dribble and pass.
In Minnesota, Butler’s style helped the Timberwolves grind out a playoff appearance last season, but it ultimately ruined their youthful vibe, exposed the immaturity of young stars Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns and led to the ouster of Tom Thibodeau, who was fired Sunday as the team’s coach and general manager. Thibodeau wanted to win now. He trusted that Butler, a player he helped develop in Chicago, would be an ideal fit. But it was a debacle.
Philadelphia seems more equipped to make it work. The young stars are more defensive minded. Embiid is a potential future defensive player of the year; Simmons has learned quickly how to use his 6-foot-10 frame, length and foot speed to his advantage. Their defensive awareness matches Butler’s greatest gift. While egos on the offensive end are a concern, this defensive foundation can be the glue. Brown will have to keep putting out fires, however. He is like most NBA coaches: He would rather contain a fire than try to start one without star power.
“This year, we’re better,” Brown said recently. “Jimmy Butler makes us better. None of us can deny that. And so that ecosystem and challenge, if you can get it right, comes with a hell of a lot of reward.”
The Sixers are a team on the right path in a league that now dares its teams to look for shortcuts. The race to catch Golden State and restore a measure of parity is so intense — and NBA free agency is such a dominant factor — that old-fashioned, draft-based team building is becoming less attractive. But it is still the preferred route to sustained success.
“They’re really good,” Wizards Coach Scott Brooks said of the Sixers and their star trio. “They seem to have a good feel for the game, all of them. They all seem to be real high-IQ players. I know, like Simmons, everybody complains that he can’t shoot, but why should you shoot when you score around the paint and you can make players better around you? The key to the game is getting a good possession each time down the court, and he gives them great possessions each time downcourt. They’re going to be tough to stop for a lot of years.”
It will get complicated for Philadelphia. If the Sixers re-sign Butler, he will join Embiid as the franchise’s second max-contract player. Then the window to sign Simmons, the No. 1 pick in the 2016 draft, will begin this summer. The Sixers must figure out how to build depth before those contracts take away most of their roster flexibility.
That is simply the dilemma of today’s NBA or any major American pro sport. Retention is costly. Patience is limited. Every move matters, and Philadelphia already has one mess to clean up with Fultz’s situation.
The Sixers, the NBA’s most promising young team, stand in front of a mirror now. Butler will force them to take a look at themselves. When they do, they need to be confident that they will like what they see.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.